|Article from "Watch Time", October 2003
By Joe Thompson
Movado Group founder Gerry Grinberg escaped the Communist revolution in Cuba only to lead a revolution in watch marketing in America.
Fidel Castro would have called him a counter-revolutionary. Castro's secret police certainly did. They called him that and much worse during a nightmarish eight-hour confinement in Havana in 1960, when they assured him they would execute him that night.
He was a young, left-leaning watch entrepreneur in those days, but he wanted no part of the Castro regime and refused an offer to join the new government. Clearly, a counter-revolutionary.
But Castro's goons were wrong about Gerry Grinberg. Their countryman was, in fact, a visionary and a revolutionary. His revolution, though, was of the capitalist, not the Communist, kind.
Grinberg survived his ordeal with the secret police and escaped with his family to the United States, where, against all odds, at the age of 30, he began selling impossibly expensive watches successfully.
In the process, he transformed the luxury watch business here. He pioneered techniques that have become standard for the industry, built what is today a $300- million watch company, the Movado Group, and became one of the makers of the modern watch world.
That and numerous other accomplishments, like his crucial role in building the fledgling Piaget brand in the 1960s and '70s, his rescue and revival of the Movado brand in the 1980s and '90s, his efforts to rally Swiss forces and resources during the quartz crisis of the 1970s (his 1979 Concord Delirium watch marked a turning point in the Swiss quartz comeback), have made him a watch legend.
Little wonder that when the Jewelry Industry Council, the promotional arm of the jewelry and watch industry, named the first Lifetime Achievement Award winner of its newly created Gem Awards, it was Gerry Grinberg. At a black tie gala in January, the Council hailed him as "a visionary in the watch industry for recognizing the potential cachet of luxury watches and marketing them accordingly."
His non-watch activities-his passion for politics (he's hobnobbed with presidents), his love of art (Andy Warhol was a personal friend) and philanthropic support of the arts (the American Ballet Theater)-have only added to the Grinberg legend.
Recently I met with Grinberg at his apartment on New York's Upper West Side to discuss his life with watches. Grinberg is one of the most interesting and complex people you'll ever meet and has led a fascinating life. Photos on the mantle in his drawing room provide ample evidence of that: there's Grinberg and his family with Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Warhol and other luminaries.
But he's a private man. I've known him for 25 years and chronicled his various watch exploits over that period. Until now he's consistently declined to sit for an article on what he did and how he did it. He didn't want to seem like an egomaniac, he would say. Besides, the present always seemed more interesting and important to him than the past. Occasionally he would talk about it, but not for publication. "OK, you want to know the Cuba story," he said to me once. ""I will tell you." And he did, with one caveat. "Don't put it in the magazine."
Maybe it's the Lifetime Achievement Award, maybe he's mellowing (he's 72 now), whatever the reason, the legend is finally ready to talk. Sitting in his drawing room, with original Andy Warhol paintings on the wall and shelves filled with oversized art books, in an open-collar black shirt and black slacks, he looks more like an artist than a watch baron.
"OK," he says nonchalantly in his Cuban accent, still rich despite the distance of four decades, "what do want to know?"
It started with an alarm clock in 1946. He was a 15-year-old high schooler in Havana. One day he visited a friend who worked in a shoe store and the owner asked Grinberg, "Hey, you know where I can get an alarm clock?"
Like a lot of things, alarm clocks were scarce in Cuba after World War II. But Grinberg looked into it. He found one, a Westclox, from another friend's father who was a wholesaler. "The retail price was $30 U.S. dollars," he remembers. Grinberg paid the wholesale price of $18 for the clock and sold it to the shoe-store owner for $18.
"A couple days later I got a call from the same guy. 'I need four more clocks.' I said to him, 'Last time I sold it for $18 and didn't make a penny. I want a little profit." He got the clocks and charged him $19.
"From there," Grinberg says, "I jumped into watches. I became his supplier for watches.
"Watches always fascinated me," he recalls. "I knew all the brand names. At that time the top of the line was Omega, Eterna, and Juvenia."
Sheffield was the first watch Grinberg distributed. Although nearly 60 years have past, he remembers the watches in exquisite detail: "Little gold ladies' watches with six rubies, three on each side. They had 18k-gold cases, made in the United States, with a 6x8 movement and a gold-plated Speidel bracelet. My cost was $13-remember the price of gold was $35 an ounce-and I got $14 or $15 for them. That was the beginning."
He worked on his own, selling 30 to 40 watches a month, making a buck or two on each watch. "My clientele was word of mouth." Soon the local distributor of Sheffield watches hired him to start selling to retail stores. "Evidently," he says, with a laugh, "I was a good salesman."
He moved upmarket when the local Juvenia dealer made a deal with him. He gave Grinberg Juvenia watches on consignment each week. Grinberg sold them to jewelers for $75 and made $2 per watch. "I did so well I was the richest of all my friends," he says with a smile.
By now he was at university studying business. He had a gift for numbers. "I could do the numbers second to none," he says. "And I hated it." The subject he liked best was marketing.
He would soon learn plenty about marketing. His university was Omega.
Fabian Weiss was the most successful watch dealer in Cuba, distributor of Switzerland's most successful brand, Omega, as well as Edox, Olma and other Swiss lines. He was a Hungarian, who had learned the ropes as a young man working for a watch distributor in Germany. He ran a disciplined, well-organized business.
Weiss was looking for a successor. His choice was Gerry Grinberg, the young man making a name for himself in Cuban watch circles. He took Grinberg in as a partner and proceeded to teach him everything he knew.
From Weiss, Grinberg learned how to run a business. How to market a watch, however, he learned from Adolph Vallat. Vallat was managing director of Omega in Switzerland, and by all accounts, one of the great watch marketers of the 20th century. Vallat's systematic marketing scheme for Omega distributors kept the brand at the head of the Swiss watch class. "We had books showing how the watches should be shown, how to advertise, how the window display should be, how this is important, how that is important," Grinberg says. As it happens, the Omega distributor in Mexico was a more faithful follower of the Vallat system than Weiss in Cuba, so Grinberg spent time-during his honeymoon, no less-learning marketing the Omega way in Mexico City in 1955. "I was brainwashed by the management of Omega," Grinberg says with a smile. "This gave me the basics of marketing."
He and his new wife, Sonia, did get to sightsee a bit on the honeymoon. "I remember we saw a Diego Rivera painting for $1,000. But we couldn't afford it."
Back in Havana, he implemented Vallat's system and saw that it worked. Omega window displays in jewelry stores presented watches properly, made stores look more modern, and boosted sales.
Vallat himself used to visit Cuba to see his friend Weiss and enjoy the beaches. On one visit he suggested that Weiss and Grinberg add another Swiss watch to their lineup-Piaget. "Piaget was a tiny factory in La Cote-aux-Fees making movements mostly for Omega," Grinberg explains. In the mid-1950s, the Piaget family decided to start making finished watches under their own name to try to turn it into a bona fide brand. Vallat told Weiss that he intended to acquire Piaget and urged him to start distributing it in Cuba.
Grinberg had no way of knowing it, but Vallat's tip led to the dramatic turning point in Grinberg's life.
So it was that Weiss and Grinberg met Camille Pilet, the international sales manager for Piaget, "a little country man," as Grinberg describes him, whose photo sits on Grinberg's mantle to this day. Weiss and Grinberg became the official distributor of Piaget in Cuba. It was, of course, a sideline to their main Omega business, which was going great guns.
"We developed Omega very nicely," Grinberg recalls. "We were navigating very well. Until Castro came."
On an early afternoon in August, Grinberg was in a café having coffee with Fabian Weiss's son, José, and an American acquaintance who worked for Revlon. The American was leaving Cuba and had come to say goodbye. Suddenly all three were whisked away by the secret police.
Grinberg was taken to a house with an empty room, where the secret police interrogated and repeatedly threatened him. They accused him of working for the CIA. They said he was in possession of an anti-Castro leaflet issued by the Catholic Church. Grinberg, who is Jewish, told them he wasn't Catholic and didn't go to Catholic Church. They boasted about all the people they had killed and told him he would be next, executed that night. This went on for hours. He wanted to call people he knew in the government. They forbid it.
Grinberg had friends in Castro's government because prior to the revolution he was a leftist, opposed to the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. One time a leftist friend asked Grinberg for help. Batista's forces were looking for the friend's boss to kill him. Grinberg agreed to use his car to help the boss get away. Grinberg drove the car to an appointed spot, where he and his friend picked up the boss, hid him in the back seat, and drove him to safety.
When Fidel Castro overthrew Batista, many of Grinberg's friends joined the government. Grinberg, too, was offered a government position, working on a nationalization board. Castro planned to nationalize the movie business first, Grinberg says, because it was the medium of propaganda. Then the newspapers. Then other private companies.
Grinberg said no. He didn't want to leave Fabian Weiss and the watch industry. And he didn't like what he saw of the Castro Revolution.
Was this why he was rounded up? Did it have something to do with the American in the cafe? To this day, Grinberg doesn't know. All he knows is that he believed he was a dead man. "I was sure that they would kill me that night," he says.
After eight hours, they put a number on him, photographed him, and released him.
A few nights later, Grinberg looked out onto the porch of his home and saw it loaded with soldiers. As he walked to the porch, his entire body broke out in rashes. "This is it," he said to Sonia. But the soldiers were looking for a guy who lived upstairs, not Grinberg.
The next day, a Saturday, Grinberg arranged to flee Cuba for Miami. That afternoon an odd thing happened. A friend who had a high position in the Castro government visited him. "He never visited me on a Saturday afternoon," Grinberg recalls. The two argued. "I told him, 'You son of a bitch!' and went on like that. And he said 'But this is a revolution!'"
On Monday, August 16, 1960-the date is embedded in his memory-Grinberg, Sonia, their daughter and son Efraim went to the airport. As they approached the entrance, Grinberg was alarmed to see another friend he knew in the Castro regime standing there. It was the same guy who asked Grinberg's help to save his boss from Batista. "He was in the uniform of a major in the army. I never knew he was in the army."
"What is going on?" Sonia asked Gerry.
"I don't know," he answered.
The major came up to them, took their daughter's hand, and asked them, "What is your flight number?"
Then he ordered soldiers to escort them safely to the plane.
In Miami, he lived in an efficiency apartment and tried to make a living. He lost money on a venture delivering meat to the homes of Cuban exiles. He did a little better buying used cars at auction and reselling them.
Camille Pilet rescued him. And Fabian and José Weiss, who had also escaped to Miami. Pilet asked them if they would go to New York and open a Piaget agency. Piaget had little representation in the United States at that time. The three jumped at the chance.
Gerry Grinberg launched his luxury watch revolution in 1961 out of a single suitcase in a single-room office at 610 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The office held four people: the three Cuban refugees and a secretary. The suitcase held their inventory, a stash of Piaget watches.
There was no safe. Every morning Grinberg took the empty suitcase to the Chase Manhattan Bank in Rockefeller Plaza and picked up the watches. Every evening he took it back and put them away. In between, he carried the suitcase store to store trying to sell the watches.
It wasn't easy. Piaget had two problems. One was brand recognition: there wasn't any. A bigger problem was their price, an average of $1,000. "Everybody used to tell me, I don't want your watches, they are the most expensive watches in the world!," Grinberg says.
"At that time, Mr. Rockefeller was wearing an $18 Timex. The 1960s was a time of polyester suits for $40 and watches for $18. Timex controlled the market. Omega was an expensive watch at a couple of hundred dollars! Werner Sonn, the head of Patek Philippe at that time, will tell you if he sold 20 watches a year, it was a lot. It was horrible, selling one watch at a time. Patek was respected because it was in Tiffany. I was not respected at that time."
That point was driven home painfully when Grinberg tried to place an ad in The New Yorker. The magazine wouldn't take it. "They told me I am not good enough for The New Yorker," he remembers.
"In New York, I didn't have any customers. Nobody." Every sale was a victory. "One day Pilet and I went to see C.D. Peacock in Chicago and they bought three Piagets at $1,000 each. Pilet and I had a party!"
Two turning points altered Piaget's and Grinberg's fortunes. One was advertising. Grinberg managed to convince The New Yorker that his watch was worthy of a small ad. What happened next didn't seem like a great moment in watch advertising at the time. But it was.
"The guy who was preparing my little ad asked, 'What copy do we put?'" Grinberg recalls. He answered, "Everybody tells me it's the most expensive watch in the world. Put that."
The other turning point was Claude Arpels, head of Van Cleef & Arpels. At the suggestion of an American jeweler who specialized in colored stones, Piaget developed a collection of watches with colored stone dials. When Grinberg saw the watches, he knew he had hit pay dirt. He had something that might interest Van Cleef & Arpels. He called on the firm and by sheer good fortune was taken to see Claude Arpels himself. As it happened, Arpels wanted to learn how to speak Spanish, took a shine to the young Cuban, and took him to lunch. "I was so impressed," Grinberg remembers. "He is Mr. Arpels and I am nobody from Cuba. He was very nice, very polite. He told me, 'Why do I need watches? I have to fix watches. Jewelry I don't have to fix.'"
That attitude was common among carriage trade jewelers. "Tiffany, Cartier, they all told me watches are a pain in the neck. It's 1%, 2% of the business."
Grinberg convinced Arpels that he should give his Piaget watches a chance. He let Grinberg put them in the store window and do some advertising. Van Cleef prepared the ad, highlighting the colored stone dials with a palette of colors. "That put Piaget on the map," Grinberg says. "Sales went from $205,000 to $433,000 in one year."
Through Van Cleef, Grinberg gained entrée to fashion magazines. Ads touting Piaget as "the most expensive watch in the world" started appearing in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Town & Country and the like. "We started using that line like crazy," Grinberg says, "and people started to respond to that. We became the 'in' watch. The demographics were there. The whole thing at that time was status. I knew that." He read every book on marketing he could get his hands on, particularly the work of Vance Packard, author of The Status Seekers. Grinberg created ads that tapped into America's emerging desire for luxury goods. "I knew exactly what I wanted."
Grinberg helped change the way America looked at watches. And not just consumers. Jewelers no longer said no to the man who sold the most expensive watches in the world. Piaget sales, which totaled $165,000 when he took over in 1961, grew to $6 million by the mid-1960s. In 1965 the Weisses sold their interest in the firm to Grinberg and he founded North American Watch Corp. Grinberg continued to push Piaget with innovative advertising and event marketing like polo matches for the Polo watch and charity sponsorships. "We built Piaget to be a $30 million company," he says.
One day Grinberg got a phone call from Andy Warhol.
By now Grinberg had added a second brand to his North American Watch Corp. lineup, Corum. Corum was a new brand, founded in 1955 in Switzerland. It was beginning to gain a reputation for unusual designs, and Grinberg became the official agent for North America. Corum never developed a wide following here but Grinberg says it had an amazing appeal for powerful men. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Schultz were among the power elite who bought Corum Gold Coin watches from Grinberg.
Now Warhol was on the line wanting a Corum Ingot watch he had seen advertised. It didn't take long for the Pop Art king, who collected watches, and the budding watch baron, who collected art, to make a deal. Both got what they wanted: Warhol a Grinberg Corum, Grinberg a Warhol lithograph. Grinberg thought that would be the end of it.
But it wasn't. Warhol called again and invited Grinberg to the Factory, Warhol's hip Manhattan headquarters. 'Come to lunch,' he told Grinberg, 'Bring you wife.' Grinberg did.
"Andy Warhol was a genius," Grinberg says. "He was also a down-to-earth, clever guy. He was networking. He knew I met a lot of people. Through me he sold a few paintings. And we became friends."
Warhol was a fixture at the gala luncheons and dinners Grinberg threw for clients in the 1970s and '80s, where the featured speakers were the country's top politicians and journalists (Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Al Haig, Ted Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and the like).
The friendship lasted until Warhol's death in 1987. Numerous Warhols are on the wall of Grinberg's apartment. He owns "about 20," he says, "but important ones, three." Grinberg also owns Warhol's collection of cookie jars, which he bought at Sotheby's auction of Warhol possessions in 1988.
Grinberg makes several appearances in the posthumously published Andy Warhol Diaries. On September 15, 1986, Warhol confides to the diary: "Gerry Grinberg doesn't like my design idea of hanging lots of the same watch faces off of one bracelet. You know, multiples, like my paintings." The reference is to the watch that became the "Andy Warhol Times/5," the first in Movado's Artist Collection, a series of limited edition watches designed by prominent contemporary artists. Grinberg has the watch in a special glass case on the table in front of us in the drawing room. It's an extraordinary piece, five watches in one, with rectangular black high-grade steel cases, linked to form a bracelet around the wrist. The dials consist of a series of Warhol photos of buildings in Manhattan.
"All these photos," Grinberg says pointing to the watch, "are from the west side. He was always flying around the west side. He would call and say 'Can I stop there?' He always carried a camera, a cheap camera." Grinberg used to kid him about it.
"I don't know how to work the good ones," Warhol told him.
"He loved New York," Grinberg says. "The days when everybody else would be out of New York, like the Fourth of July, he used to be here, with his camera, taking pictures. I used to be with him."
Once, when North American Watch sponsored a black-tie benefit for the Grace Kelly Foundation at the Reagan White House, Grinberg brought Warhol as his guest. After the event, he and Warhol were having a nightcap at their Washington hotel, when Warhol suddenly stood up and said he was going back to New York. It was 1 a.m.
"There's no plane," Grinberg told him. Warhol was undaunted. He wanted to get back to New York right away. The only way was a car. So Grinberg arranged for a limousine to drive Warhol to New York.
In January 1979, Grinberg made headlines across the country-indeed, The New York Times ran a newsmaker profile of him-when he unveiled one of most important watches of the 20th century: the Concord Delirium. With a total thickness of just 1.98mm thick, it was the thinnest watch in the world.
Delirium marked a turning point in the Swiss quartz crisis of the 1970s. It proved that Switzerland could compete with the Japanese in the new quartz technology sweeping the watch world. The watch's ultra-thin movement and case had been developed by a secret team within ETA, Switzerland's major movement producer, charged with beating the Japanese at what had become their game: ultra-thin, ultra-accurate quartz watches.
In Europe, Delirium was marketed under the Longines and Eterna brands, well-known Swiss makes. In the United States it was launched under the far more obscure brand of Concord.
The reason: Concord was Gerry Grinberg's brand.
He had acquired it in 1970. With Piaget and Corum, he had emerged as a major Swiss-watch distributor in the United States. But he wanted his own brand. Sleepy little Concord wasn't his first choice. Movado was. He tried to acquire Movado in 1969, but the owners wouldn't sell. So he bought Concord. It was primarily a private label producer, making watches for third parties. "They used to advertise it as 'the most unknown watch in the world,'" he says with a chuckle.
Grinberg set out to change that. His plan was to build Concord using the new quartz technology. But he watched with frustration as Switzerland dawdled while Japanese watch producers stole market share on the strength of dynamite new quartz movements.
Grinberg's role in Switzerland's quartz crisis is little known, but he was a major agent for change, urging the reluctant Swiss to embrace the new technology. Later, looking back on that period, former ETA chief Ernst Thomke, who spearheaded ETA's conversion to quartz, told me, "Nobody pushed me harder than Gerry Grinberg."
In the late 1970s, a delegation of Swiss watch distributors from the United States went to Switzerland to express their growing concern about Switzerland's plight. Behind closed doors, Grinberg gave a blistering speech, designed to rouse the Swiss from their lethargy. He warned that Seiko, which had emerged as a juggernaut in the United States, was performing a pincer move that threatened Swiss watches in America and other markets. (I remember the episode well. Rumors about the blunt speech spread quickly through watches circles here. One of my first little coups as a watch reporter was to get hold of a copy from Swiss sources and publish it.)
Grinberg put his money where his mouth was. He gave embattled ETA 2 million Swiss francs to develop a thin ETA 9-ligne movement for use in Concord watches.
When Thomke's team developed Delirium, there was no doubt who would launch it in the United States. ETA wanted Grinberg and Grinberg wanted Delirium.
Delirium was never a best-seller. In truth, it was too thin, with technical problems caused by the thin case. Technically and strategically, though, it was a major breakthrough. After Delirium, the Swiss enjoyed quartz parity with Japan and Concord was obscure no more.
In 1965, Nathan George Horwitt, the designer of the Movado Museum Watch, had a bone to pick with Grinberg. Horwitt paid him a visit to complain that the colored stone dials of Grinberg's Piaget watches were copies of Horwitt's Museum watch design because the dials had no markings other than the Piaget logo.
Grinberg explained that the stone dials had to be unadorned; they were so delicate that it was difficult to put even the Piaget name on without breaking them. What's more, Grinberg said, the Piaget dials did not resemble Horwitt's famous black dial with the gold dot at 12 o'clock.
Horwitt, then 67, was a Renaissance man: a Bauhaus-influenced industrial designer, writer, photographer, inventor, political activist and farmer. He created his dial with a dot and two thin hands in 1947 but was unable to muster interest in it from any of the many watch companies he approached. Its design was so minimalist that some critics claimed it had no design at all. Horwitt fans, on the other hand, like the noted photographer Edward Steichen, thought it strikingly original and beautiful.
Horwitt's watch finally got some attention in 1960, though not from the watch world. New York's Museum of Modern Art accepted it into its permanent collection, where it became known as the Museum Watch. Shortly afterward Switzerland's Movado reached an agreement with Horwitt to use the watch in the Movado line. However, Movado sold Museum models only in the United States.
Grinberg sympathized with Horwitt because there were, indeed, numerous knockoffs of his design on the market. Piaget, though, was not one of them. "I liked Horwitt," Grinberg says. "He knew design second to none. We were very friendly."
Still, Horwitt sued him. In his filing, Horwitt claimed several brands were violating his copyright, including Piaget.
Grinberg and Horwitt both won in court. The judge (Judge Whittman Knapp, of Serpico fame) ruled that Piaget was not guilty of violating the patent. However, he said, other firms were, a victory for Horwitt.
Grinberg and Horwitt remained friends. Horwitt would visit Grinberg and bring a delicacy, morel mushrooms he grew on his 400-acre farm in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Horwitt put Movado on Grinberg's radar. Grinberg admired the Museum Watch design and believed it should be the centerpiece of the company, not a U.S. sideline. In 1969, he made a bid to buy Movado, but was turned down.
Grinberg bided his time, while Movado struggled under a series of new owners: Zenith Watch Company (1969), Zenith Radio Corp. of Chicago (1972) and Dixi (1978). The company continued to struggle and Grinberg eventually did acquire it in 1983. Sales that year totaled just $4 million. The Grinberg team created a new product line around the Museum Watch and a new advertising campaign aimed at a younger, more educated audience, with an interest in culture and the arts. The formula worked. In 1987, Movado sales reached $50 million. Since then, it has become the core brand and flagship of Grinberg's company, which officially became known as to the Movado Group in 1996.
Today, Grinberg remains active in the company. "More or less supervising" is how he describes his role as chairman. Son Efraim is the CEO and runs the business day to day.
Watches remain one of the great loves of Grinberg's life. His only greater loves are his family and his adopted country. Grinberg possesses a deep abiding appreciation for the United States. His experience in Cuba and his success here have made him an outspoken advocate of the American way. He has lived the American dream. In a moving speech after receiving the JIC Lifetime Achievement Award, he repeated a refrain that is a major theme of his life: "Every day I thank America," he said and listed the reasons why.
"This is the best country in the world, no question about that," he said once on the CNN program "Pinnacle," which profiled him. "Here I am a Cuban from a Jewish background, with an accent, and I never feel like a foreigner in this country. It's a country of opportunity. What happened to me here could not happen anywhere else in the world."